Design of coworking spaces – Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Open and closed doors: Creating a balanced environment for work and collaboration.

The physical space we work in is equally important to the quality of our environment as the people around us. A bad space can have such a dramatic effect on our work and productivity. Think of a time when the office heating was broken or they moved your desk to another part of the room, for how long and how much did it effect your work?

Opening a space for people to cowork involves also considering how you design the right environment for people to feel comfortable and also productive. It’s not an easy task, a work space needs to encourage productivity, collaboration, comfort, serendipitous interactions and spaces to think or be alone, It needs to make people feel comfortable to be themselves if you have many people coming and going regularly then the space needs to feel like you are part of it, a sense of ownership can be hard when coworker turnover is high. Then there are environmental factors, heating, air conditioning, white noise, should you have music or no music?

Let’s start with Serendipitous interactions, the Harvard Business Review article “Who moved my cube?” 4.3 explores the conclusions from 12 years worth of research on the effects of design on interactions. Over those 12 years they conducted 9 studies focussing on organisations in the US , Europe and Asia. The conclusion comes down to three dimensions or ‘affordances’ that have physical and social aspects they are: Proximity, Privacy and Permission.

The article points out some interesting failures in office redesigns that had otherwise good intentions. According to HBR “Common sense, it turns out, is a poor guide when it comes to designing a space” One example is the Scandinavian Airlines, who redesigned their head office around a central ‘Street’ along which they had a cafe, offices, shopping and other facilities and multi-rooms containing fax machines and photocopiers. They wanted this to promote informal interactions but the results where that nothing changed, Only 9% of interactions where happening in the “street”. While open areas do bring people closer to each other, too much openness inhibits exchanges because people feel exposed. They conclude that:

“The most effective spaces bring people together and remove barriers while also providing sufficient privacy that people don’t fear being overheard or interrupted. In addition, they reinforce permission to convene and speak freely. … getting the balance wrong can turn a well-meant effort to foster creative collaboration into a frustrating lesson in unintended consequences.”4.3

You can read more about the The ‘three Ps’ of workplace collaboration in the article

Serendipitous interactions are about that crucial conversation that can lead to a great friendship or partnership that would not have normally occurred. What, in the past the local coffee shop was a place for, where you were free to be alone or to engage in chit chat, to read the newspaper and know with some certainty that the person next to you has probably read the same news article. Nowadays there are so many platforms for news and current affairs that you’d be reluctant to engage the person next to you in a casual chat about the news.

“The café provided an opportune space in which to create relations based on spontaneous solidarity. This fleeting fraternity rested on three values. The first was selectivity – that is, the freedom of participants in café sociability to converse with whomever they wished. The second value was autonomy – the right not to be interrupted by third parties once you had begun to talk with a particular person or group. The third involved the idea of tolerance – that is, the concept that no one in the café should take offence at the minor irritations and insults that accompanied socialising in a small space amid a dense urban agglomeration. (Haine 1996, p150) 5.3 An ethnography of a neighbourhood café

This balance of choice between engaging with strangers explained in this cafe example is exactly what is referred to by HBR above, it’s the balance of Proximity, Permission and Privacy. Which is what any coworking workspace should be looking to create, where the coffee shop has lost somewhat in recent years.

Our behaviours in coffee shops changed when the pace of life changed, when we started waiting in 10 minute queues for a cup of average coffee and we became very passive consumers of coffee. Third spaces are no longer what they used to be and we are filling that gap with a new options. And the real coffee shops need to adjust to suit the needs of their customers, and some do – I refer to them as ‘coffee shop +’ in chapter 1. They are making the necessary steps to accommodate the wandering worker, reliable wifi, plenty of sockets and small individual tables and cosy sofas. They often result in people becoming regulars, increasing the chances of interaction between customers, preserving that freedom to converse.

In his work The Great Good Place Ray Oldenburg wrote about “third places”

“Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our work places the ‘second’”

Ray Oldenburg

This meant everything from your hairdressers to your corner store, community hall or coffee shop, a variety of different public spaces that host regular voluntary, informal, happily anticipated gatherings beyond the home and the workplace he also explains his belief that these places are disappearing in modern United States and that the decrease in availability of these community gathering spaces is impacting our lives.

“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.”

The paper The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment tells us that coffee shop chains in the US grew by more than 10% annually in comparison to 2% of fast food chains. The paper looks at what qualities both physical and social, encourage people to gather in those coffee shops and develop an attachment to those places.

“Attachment to place involves the assessment of the current setting, as well as the assessment of the relative quality of alternative settings (Stokols & Shumaker, 1981). Higher quality environmental settings are those that support the goals and activities of the person (Stokols and Shumaker, (1982). Stokols and Shumaker’s (1982) model of place attachment lists neighbourhood, physical amenities, individual and household characteristics, and social networks as important components of place attachment.” 5.2

The paper goes on to say,

“Taylor (1983) propose a person-environment congruence model of place attachment. This model suggests that place attachment involves “expectations of stability, feelings of positive affect, greater knowledge of the locale, and behaviours that serve to maintain or enhance the location” 5.2

Interior design companies and service design companies are taking this kind of research into account when designing new work spaces and coworking spaces – as coworking has been largely experimental up until the past few years only now are spaces opening where they can begin to consider the physical space as part of the launch whereas previously a space at all would have been enough. Older spaces are also now established enough to reconsider their physical space and look at how they optimise for their renters needs from the space.

“We don’t view it as an office that we provide it’s more like a clubhouse that we participate in. When we opened we needed to paint the walls put together furniture, we do that together and value of that is people really feeling like this is more than a place where people go to get their work done its something they are part of they want to. …when it came time to grow a year later we said lets not forget our roots lets do that again it worked really really well, so this time we went in with more intentionality and looked at what worked and what didn’t” Alex Hillman Interview 3.11

TILT, architecture practice are establishing themselves at the forefront of collaborative space design , with a number of coworking spaces under their belts and they will play a large part in The Downtown project’s family of coworking spaces in Las Vegas. Their method ‘codesign’ involves the end users through a design thinking style process. Using similar methods NextDoor in Chicago was developed by IDEO –

“They had brought in IDEO to work on a shop space that would suit younger customers, make them feel welcome and safe. And it morphed into what they have now. IDEO built prototype spaces in a 5000Sqft warehouse space and tested them before they came up with the final product.” 3.7 BRETT MYRES – Program Director @ NextDoor

These prototypes couldn’t be more important to the space, as NextDoor is run by Statefarm insurance company, a balance between the financial advice that they offer, their brand as a company and offering a free space for the public to enjoy and utilise is extremely important – you don’t want customers to look away because they feel the space is a corporation’s attempt to get close to customers, they should be aware that the space really is for them.

When some spaces have been around for a while and are more established and have the basics of running their space in place they start to add automated systems and screens or RFID chip cards etc. NextDoor however found that the more tech you have the more you distance yourself from your renters, and ultimately this harms your community.

“The blackboard was going to be an interactive digital screen but people didn’t respond well to it.

Why should I use that if I have my phone, to book from wherever, I don’t want to come in and use your hardware.” 3.7 BRETT MYRES – Program Director @ NextDoor

It’s about paring things down to what’s necessary and a good experience, which for your community to thrive should be a human experience.

“In Coffee Shop 1, the favourite seats were sheltered somewhat due to their placement along walls, or next to the edge of the second floor level, which essentially created a partial wall (see figure 7). The only preferred seat not sheltered by some architectural feature was the lone upholstered chair, reported to be the only comfortable chair in the coffee shop. This upholstered chair was moved frequently by patrons to accommodate their preferences. In Coffee Shop 2, all the favourite seats except one were also sheltered against walls or the counter (see figure 8). In Coffee Shop 3, the seats along the walls were chosen first, with corner seats being the most preferred (see figure 9).” 5.2 The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment

As I read this statement I sit in the Argo Tea cafe in Chicago and I notice the layout. The designer has made some very clear decisions based on exactly the point stated above. All but one table in the cafe has been placed to include some form of shelter to the occupants, with curved half walls erected in the middle of the room with sofas attached to create more opportunity for seclusion and all other tables against the windows and walls. FIG 7 The space is still communal and you are around other people at that Familiar Strangers* level.


FIG 7 – Argo Tea shop sketch

Take aways

Make space for community, consider interaction as the purpose of the space, but don’t assume it’s all your space is for, a space needs a balance of Proximity, Privacy and Permission. A human centred design approach involving your renters in the process becomes part of building your community. Its worth the time an effort you put into considering the ‘experience’ your renter receives.